Surveillance: MSM’s Dismay With The Tool Of Coercion


The “all”-correct mainstream media has recently “discovered” a very, very hard fact: journalists are kept under surveillance.

Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND), the country’s foreign intelligence agency, spied upon scores of foreign journalists, said media reports from Germany. The business went for almost two decades. At least 50 telephone and fax numbers, and email addresses from journalists and editors around the world have been monitored by the BND since 1999. Among the numbers listed were of the phones of journalists working with/for BBC, The New York Times and Reuters in Afghanistan, and fax numbers at the BBC headquarters in London. Local reporters in Zimbabwe, Kuwait, Lebanon and India were also targeted.

The BND refused to comment on the allegations as it says that it “comments exclusively to the German government or the committee responsible in the German parliament”. An official representative of the German government refused to comment on the reports. A German government spokesman said the BND was acting in accordance with the law. However, German press groups criticized the reports of surveillance: “massive violation of press freedom”, violation of the German constitution, which prohibits surveillance of German nationals.

At least one world famous MSM organization expressed its dismay and disappointment with the revelation.

Here come exposures by a number of whistleblowers including Edward Snowden. Exposures by Snowden were: surveillance at global scale and at mass level, surveillance-collaboration between spy agencies of countries that consider them allies, from states-persons considered allies and adversaries to ordinary citizens are constantly watched, trade negotiators are also followed.

Is the recent revelation – keeping eyes on journalists by an intelligence organization – a fact-unknown? Is similar pattern beyond assumption of all concerned? Doesn’t state always act in the way? Is the contradiction between rights related to freedom and essential requirements of ruling machine without any basis?

The MSM, especially the bourgeois-imperialist media (BIM) is part and party of the “game” states/state machines carry on; and state serves specific interests; and MSM/BIM is owned by those specific interests. Competition between parts of the interests, and gaining credibility among its audience, MSM’s/BIM’s essential requirement for marketing its viewpoint, ideology and politics, leads it to its “rebellious” posture – making a few revelations – at times. “Crusaders” for rights pick up the “fight”, “raise” hue and cry, but fails to expose the truth, or an “inertia” overwhelms them at the time of getting closer to underlying facts: nature and character of state/ruling machine, the source that assembles the machine, interests the machine protects/serves, contradictions the interests try to deal with by using the machine, and symptoms the revelations carry. These all are known to the MSM/BIM. But, at times, they play dumb, they raise cloud of confusion to camouflage real issue so that common persons get confused and the real issue remains hidden from the commoners’ eyes. The “crusaders” swallow and digest the product made with formula from MSM/BIM-pharmacopeia.

The MSM/BIM know “best”; the MSM/BIM is the “conscience of humanity”; the MSM/BIM is always politically “correct”; the MSM/BIM stand for “democracy”; and so on and so forth. This is the image the MSM/BIM build up and polish bright for brains of its audience. It plays role of “sentinel” on question of its democracy even if the democracy doesn’t give space to people’s participation; it opposes dictators selectively and at selected moments; it knows all information about autocracy and corruption, and at times it fails to measure extent of autocratic rule, torture, persecution and mega-corruption in countries; it’s well-aware of big brother, and it fails to find out big brother; and it knows functions of state and it turns disappointed with acts of state as facts-“unknown” get exposed to it.

Shall anyone active in public life or dealing with sensitive information or carrying on activities that may impact public life imagine that the person is not under surveillance? Based on recent exposures it is assumed that not only the world famous media organizations are under surveillance net; all including insignificant persons, if the insignificant person appears “disturbing” or potentially-“disturbing”, are/will be under the net also. So, no exposure is astonishing or disappointing. Wikileaks’ revelations are the latest evidences.

However, each exposure brings fresh indication: state of capitalist rule on a world scale. The rule is going through crises and a process of decay, which it’s failing to reconcile with, and the leaks carry a fragment of indication of the decay and crises.

Theoreticians of the working classes have long ago dissected state, identified its origin, nature, character, power, organs, and roles the organs play. These have been proved repeatedly. Recent revelations are actually nothing new, but new evidences of the declining condition of the system.

The reality the camp is facing within is competition, which is increasing and intensifying. Contradictory interests within the camp are making it difficult for the camp to reach a consensus. On the issues of migrants, tact being/to be followed in dealing with Russia, China, Iran and similar others, Ukraine, security of Europe, role in the Pacific theater are a few of the evidences of contradictory interests. Condition of dominating politics within the leading components, and the tact the politics is adopting, much more vulgar and conspiratorial than the tact followed in the system’s periphery, is another evidence of condition of the global system. This reality compels ruling machines to increasingly rely on surveillance.

Surveillance in capitalist society is part of direct coercion that capital exerts on all other dominated parts including the proletariat in the process of governance: execute class rule. State, institutionalized form of coercion by dominating interests, in capitalist society can enjoy no autonomy other than it is allowed to enjoy. Surveillance in the capitalist economy begins in the spheres of production and circulation (capital, labor, reserve army of labor and consumers), and invades all spheres of politics with its ever-open watchful eyes. It begins by keeping watch on labor, disciplining labor, moves with wider eyes to areas of white collar employees and consumers of all classes, carries on the journey in areas of communication, culture, science, education, environment, sports and games, religion, and all sorts of activism. Competing parts of capital also keep on surveillance of each other, which means, capital is under surveillance by capital. Recent exposures carry these facts.

Surveillance, a tool for coercion, by capitalism is fundamentally not different from its ancestors – feudal and slave-owning societies. The only differences between surveillances in capitalist and its ancestor economies are in terms of targets for surveillance, and scope and speed as changes occur in the areas of relations of production and technology respectively.

Surveillance acts as a whip along with its other tasks; and the whip is different in appearance and form from whips in preceding economies. It’s not like the whip slave owners lashed out on slaves or feudal lords operated to flog serfs. In Rome, “[s]ome [slave owning] women … paid an annual salary for someone to flog their slaves.… There were … professional slave-floggers and torturers.” (Gad Heuman and Trevor Burnard, eds., The Routledge History of Slavery, Routledge, London and New York, 2011) In regions in Africa, “slave was an instrument … and coercion could be used to force compliance with particular order. The slave was told what to do and, if he or she did not do it, he or she was punished, often severely…. [T]he power of masters over slaves extended to the right of life and death. In many places … slaves could be sacrificed at funerals of important individuals, as a sign of wealth and as one form of offering to gods…. [O]ften individual slaves were bought specifically for the purpose of sacrifice…. The most well known public executions of slaves occurred in Dahomey, where hundreds of captives were killed in annual festivals…. Violence was … a crucial dimension of social control. (ibid.) “In IOA [Indian Ocean Africa] and Asia, violence or the threat of violence could certainly induce slaves to work”. (Edward Alpers, Gwyn Campbell and Michael Salman, Slavery and Resistance in Africa and Asia, Routledge, 2005) Christian Parenti in his The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror (Basic Books, New York, 2003) cites examples of slave pass, slave badge, and ticket for slaves during the slave-owning days in today’s US. These were tools of coercion.

Is it basically different today? Is it different in capitalist society? Or, has not it widened and intensified, has not it pervaded and intruded more deeply and widely, has not it taken away all privacy and has it left any single particle of privacy out of its surveillance net? A thorough survey of the reality on the basis of facts exposed presents the answers inconvenient to MSM.

The surveillance whip always lashes out all around now; it lashes out on brains and psyche of all citizens, of all tax payers, consumers and voters, and, creates a fearosphere, an atmosphere of fear. The surveillance grip clutches all movements, all locations, all talks, all mails and communications, every aspect of behavior patterns, preferences and tastes in all areas of daily life including food, fashion, fine arts, mood, and everything, and all the moments from dawn to dawn. The surveillance tool and tact in the hands of the dominating interests spares none, neither persons sitting at the top of state machine nor common persons on streets nor a middle-class consumer driving a car and visiting a friend or a kin – mother or sister or son. “The Wall Street Journal analyzed a variety of everyday situations and found more than 20 different ways that people’s information is regularly recorded. That number does not include special situations such as border crossings or surveillance that occurs only when someone is suspected of a crime.” (Jennifer Valentino-Devries, “The Economics of Surveillance”, The Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2012) Today, as exposures tell, with improved technology dominating interests control, and with increased uncertainty the interests face, the sphere of surveillance has widened, and is operating with totalitarian and frightening power and tact. Not only movements and acts of tax payers and consumers are kept under constant surveillance, their brains – feelings, imaginations, anger, etc. – are also under surveillance. “In reality, the emerging architecture of the soft cage of total surveillance is perhaps the most frightening because it is so mundane, decentralized, and even convenient.” (Parenti, op. cit.)

“The ability to monitor the communications of entire groups and nations on a mass scale is now a technical reality, posing new and substantially more grave human rights issues. Recent reforms of surveillance laws undertaken across political systems with significant checks and balances show how easily surveillance capabilities can outstrip the ability of laws to effectively regulate them. In non-democratic and authoritarian systems, the power gained from the use of surveillance technologies can undermine democratic development and lead to serious human rights abuses. Opposition activists, human rights defenders, and journalists have been placed under intrusive government surveillance.” (Privacy International, The Global Surveillance Industry, July 2016, emphasis added) “In 2015 … the Ugandan government had … procured a monitoring centre from an Israeli company designed to monitor the entirety of the nation’s internet traffic.” (ibid.) Now, in 2017, it is not a single nation, but all internet traffic and telephone conversations of entire populations in countries in continents are monitored. Don’t exposures coming out regularly stand as evidence?

These are part of repression process and mechanism. And, there is trade with repression. Michael T Klare uses the term “international repression trade” that “incorporates many products which are not normally considered ‘weapons’ at all, but which play an important role in political warfare. Such items include surveillance systems and telephone-tapping equipment; … and computerized intelligence systems. In addition to the hardware, the repression trade also includes software: … intelligence exchanges, and political-ideological cooperation.” (“The International Repression Trade”, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 1979, vol. 35, no. 9) The observation was made about 40 years ago. Over the following years, near-half-a century, capital has encountered increased problems, which has led it to increase its investment in the area, recruit more intellect to serve it, and has made its technology smarter. “Repression technology”, writes Steve Wright, “is the broad term used to describe the hardware, software and liveware (human) components of manipulative programmes of socio-political control.” (“The New Technologies of Political Repression: A New Case for Arms Control?”, Philosophy and Social Action, 17 (3-4) July-December 1991) Technologies used for monitoring of entire population include telephone, internet and location monitoring, intrusion, biometrics, audio-, video- and counter-surveillance, forensics, and analysis. The Surveillance-Industrial Complex, A Political Economy of Surveillance (Kirstie Ball and Laureen Snider, eds., Routledge, 2014) discusses global grip of the complex. Its roots and tool are the world capitalist economy, and states the economy owns respectively.

All parts of state machine – executive, legislative and judiciary – jealously play respective role in surveillance operation, which covers planning, legal coverage and execution.

The MSM/BIM is well aware of these facts, but denies discussing the “fearsome” issue until its credibility is questioned, until discussing the issue is required to play its part in the dominating politics, until it’s required to reach its target-audience – the masses of people, the social force required to gain credibility, to ensure market, and to win over ideologically. Hence, the MSM/BIM should neither get astonished nor dismayed nor disappointed with the recent surveillance-exposure, which is a fact of capitalist way of life.

The article appeared first in MR Online, daily web magazine of Monthly Review, on March 11, 2017.

Farooque Chowdhury is a Dhaka-based free lancer.

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